By Angus MacSwan and Alistair Smout
The battle for the hearts and heads of the Scottish people intensified on Thursday as two banks said they would shift their registered head offices to London if Scotland voted to break away from the United Kingdom in a referendum next week.
The warning from Edinburgh-based Lloyds and RBS put the independence campaign on the defensive and followed a new poll which showed a slender lead for those wishing to keep the 307-year long union with England.
And the Scotsman newspaper, in a front-page editorial on Thursday, announced its verdict on the choice: “We are better together.”
The latest developments heightened the drama and the passions surrounding the historic referendum.
In the past week, polls had shown a surge in support for the independence campaign led by Alex Salmond’s Scottish National Party, and it appeared they were on a march to victory in next Thursday’s vote.
That prompted Conservative Prime Minister David Cameron and Ed Miliband of the opposition Labour Party to head to Scotland on Wednesday to make emotional appeals for Scots to stay within “Britain’s family of nations”.
The pro-independence camp says it is time for Scots to rule their own country and build a fairer society without being told what to do by a political elite in London. The campaign for staying together says Scotland is more prosperous and secure within the United Kingdom, and says an independent nation would struggle to be economically viable.
The unanswered questions of what currency Scotland would use and what central bank it would have led to alarm in the corporate world as well as weighing on voters’ minds.
Dutch insurer Aegon NV also said on Thursday it would set up a new registered life company in England if Scotland exited the union.
The company said policies for its non-Scottish customers in the UK would continue to be in sterling and that it would support any different currency for Scottish based customers.
Thursday’s announcements by Edinburgh-based Lloyds and Royal Bank of Scotland – both part-owned by the British government – were greeted by the “No” campaign as bolstering their position.
Lloyds bank, which is 25 percent-owned by the British government and controls Bank of Scotland, said its contingency plans included setting up “legal entities in England”, a move that would not affect its business.
RBS said it would be necessary to re-domicile its holding company. TSB Banking Group, which is part-owned by Lloyds, said it was likely to relocate some operations to England.
Lloyds’ headquarters are in London but its registered office is in Edinburgh. RBS senior management is based in London but its registered offices are in Edinburgh. The location of a company’s registered office, its legal home, is what dictates its regulatory and tax regime.
NO RBS JOB CUTS
RBS Chief Executive Ross McEwan told staff that moving the registered offices did not mean it would cut jobs in Scotland or move operations away, and it would not affect its day-to-day services.
“This is a technical procedure regarding the location of our registered head office. It is not an intention to move operations or jobs,” McEwan said in a memo seen by Reuters.
Salmond seized on McEwan’s comments to dismiss the significance of the moves. He accused the British government of orchestrating a campaign among corporate leaders to talk negatively about independence.
“I think the people of Scotland have moved beyond these warnings and these scaremongerings,” he told a news conference.
John Swinney, finance minister in the SNP-led Scottish government, told the BBC that the banks’ announcements were a result of the British government’s refusal to agree to a formal currency union with an independent Scotland.
Bank of England Governor Mark Carney has raised questions about currency arrangements in an independent Scotland, saying it would need stockpiles of sterling if it adopted the pound without an agreement with the rest of the United Kingdom.
The thought of the banks’ departure caused little heartache in some quarters.
“I would rather be poor and standing on my own two feet, making my decisions about my country, rather than being ripped off by robber barons in Westminster,” Daniel Hargreaves, a “Yes” voter from Edinburgh, told Reuters as he rushed to work.
Salmond also repeated his stance that, despite what political leaders in London are now saying, rump United Kingdom would agree to a currency union in the event of a “Yes” victory as it was common sense and would be in their mutual interest.
His confidence does not extend to financial markets, with the pound taking a hit as the possibility of a “Yes” victory strengthened. Investors also fear the effect on Britain of Scotland claiming much of the North Sea oil and gas reserves.
Two of Britain’s biggest retailers, John Lewis JLP.UL] and Next also said an independent Scotland could face higher prices in the shops.
Charlie Mayfield, chairman of department store chain John Lewis Partnership, which also owns the Waitrose grocery chain, said it cost more to deliver goods in Scotland due to the longer distances and higher regulatory costs.
Next Chief Executive Simon Wolfson said it would not be difficult for Next to adapt but he would worry that prices and taxes would go up and jobs be lost.
Salmond also said on Thursday he was sure the European Union would welcome independent Scotland as a member, pointing to the substantial proportion of EU fishing and energy resources that lie in Scottish waters.
EU membership has been another battleground, with some European leaders saying Scotland would have to leave and apply to rejoin. Spain, facing its own separatist movements in Catalonia and the Basque Country, has been particularly vocal.
However, the new EU commissioner for enlargement, Johannes Hahn, suggested on Thursday there was room for manoeuvre.
“Let’s wait what will be the outcome in Scotland. Let’s allow the Scots to decide,” he told Austria’s ORF radio. “This is also part of our European fabric of values – that those who are affected decide and then the others have to respect that.”
A poll released on Wednesday evening showed 53 per cent of Scots would vote against a split, against 47 per cent intending to opt for independence. The figures from the poll, carried out by Survation for the Daily Record newspaper, excluded 10 percent of voters who said they were still undecided.
The Scotsman editorial, covering the newspaper’s first three pages, said that independence would bring too many unknowns, from currency to defence.
“With the choices before us, the conclusion is that we are better together, that Scotland’s interests lie not in creating division but in continuing in the union and using its strengths to contribute in our success,” it said.
Salmond however, said he was sure Scots would vote for independence next Thursday, despite “the blatant bullying and intimidation” of the British government.